Emancipation of the Non-Jewish Partner

During Passover–which began Wednesday night–Jews are commanded to make a “mishna,” or commentary, on the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The rabbis who drew up the Passover rituals demanded that each successive generation find ways to connect the ancient story of enslavement and freedom to their lives.

One of today’s parallels has less to do with restrictions of freedom on Jews than it has to do with restrictions on their partners of different religious backgrounds. Perversely, other Jews are the ones restricting their freedom.

In yesterday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, wrote an op-ed urging the Jewish community to reconsider its restrictions on synagogue membership and ritual involvement for non-Jews:

… it was not Moses but his non-Jewish wife Zipporah who took into her own hands, quite literally, the task of circumcising their sons.

Today, we know of many intermarried households where the partner who is not Jewish is an equal contributor in raising Jewish children. In many cases the non-Jewish partner has the greatest influence over the children’s Jewish identities. Yet it is not difficult to imagine that if Moses and Zipporah were alive today, some synagogue administrator would be sitting them down to explain why their household of four is eligible for an individual membership because only Moses can join, and that only Moses’ name will appear on temple mailings to their home.

As Olitzky and Bronfman acknowledge, restrictions on membership and ritual involvement have fallen in many synagogues in the past few decades. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues allow non-Jews to be members, but the Conservative movement prohibits people of other religious backgrounds from becoming individual members. What’s prohibited varies tremendously from synagogue to synagogue: some restrict non-Jews from serving on committees, some allow non-Jews to serve in leadership roles but not “religious” ones, some prohibit non-Jews from reading prayers in Hebrew but allow them to say them in English, some allow non-Jews to open the ark but not recite the blessings before a Torah reading, and so on.

Every synagogue needs to balance its sense of integrity with its need to be welcoming. But the leadership of all synagogues should realize these restrictions often hurt non-Jewish partners more than they know. The Catholic dad who can’t join his son on the bima after supporting him through years of Hebrew school study; the Episcopalian grandma who is not allowed to touch the Torah; the Presbyterian wife who helped organize temple breakfasts but can’t join the board–these people feel hurt by their exclusion. It reminds them always that they are not fully part of the synagogue’s community. It subtly sends the message that unless they convert, they’ll never be full citizens.

Ironically, a successful model of Jewish inclusiveness more radical than is available at almost any synagogue is right beneath our noses. And it smells really good. It’s the Passover seder itself.

Last night, my cousin’s Baptist-raised boyfriend attended my family’s seder, and he was practically an honored guest. We involved him in every part of the seder. There was never debate about whether he could read passages in English but not make the Hillel sandwich. We didn’t argue over whether he should or shouldn’t be allowed to dip parsley in water. We didn’t sit my cousin down to explain how her boyfriend couldn’t drink the second cup of wine. He was involved fully–and joyfully, I hope–and the integrity of our practice wasn’t compromised. As Olitzky and Bronfman say, “Just a decade or two ago, few synagogues permitted parents who were not Jewish to stand on the bima during their own children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. Today, many synagogues allow it–and the foundations of Jewish civilization did not crumble.”

Non-Jews have been coming to Passover seders for years, and taking part in every ritual, and the foundations of Jewish civilization did not crumble. Might there be a lesson in that for synagogue leaders?

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2 thoughts on “Emancipation of the Non-Jewish Partner

  1. Sorry, folks: joining a synagogue is not the same as joining the Y or going to summer camp. It does involve religious affiliation. All religions have rules, including Judaism!

  2. This is a prime example of where the interfaith movement is going too far. Joining a synagogue requires membership to a belief system. I would not join a church if I wasn’t a Christian, nor would pastors allow me to do so. Interfaith families have their own merits, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing our families are the same. I appreciate what my non Jewish father gave me in terms of Jewish identity, but I also have to acknowledge that he’s not part of the group either. He’s not offended by that at all.

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